America’s Nation-Building Dilemma

The phrase “nation-building,” in a vacuum, sounds positive. Building, after all, is constructive. Nevertheless, this phrase has become something with near universally negative associations in discussions of foreign policy. Of course, it requires only a cursory look at the recent history of American attempts at nation-building in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan to understand why this is the case.

Decades of American troops on foreign soil and the ever-present symbol of caskets draped in American flags serve as potent reminders of the cost of military intervention. Furthermore, the continued violence and internal instability even after so much time and effort has been spent on building modern democratic institutions in these regions has further disillusioned the American public.

It would be easy to conclude from American experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and—looking further back—Vietnam that nation-building is simply a bad idea. However, if we look further back in time, it can be seen where two destroyed nations were successfully rebuilt as liberal democracies.

Following the Second World War, the United States successfully rebuilt both Germany and Japan into strong allied nations. Additionally, the situations of the countries in question were not so different from those in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both cases, the countries were devastated economically by war, and the Japanese and German populations contained their fair share of fanatics who were as willing to give their lives in the name of their cause as any jihadi.

Therefore, when we speak of nation-building, we should not look to Vietnam, and to a lesser extent Korea, but instead to Germany and Japan for examples. The Allies did not enter Germany under the pretext of liberating the German people from the tyranny of Hitler. It was made clear that the Germans were complicit and responsible for the actions of their leaders and government. This stands in stark opposition to the narrative pushed by the invading coalition during the Second Gulf War.

In a well-intentioned attempt to induce a coup against Saddam Hussein and reduce local resistance to the invasion, the operation was framed as a war to liberate the Iraqi people specifically by toppling Hussein. The Iraqi people were not held to account for the actions of their government. While this led to an easier campaign and was a politically expedient narrative in the short term, its ultimate effect was that a sovereign Iraqi government was set up almost immediately after the previous regime had been toppled.

In both Germany and Japan, occupation continued for decades, with democratic tradition slowly being built up through the education system and local governments before the nations were returned to their full sovereignty. Democracy is not simply a government institution that can be mandated into existence. It relies on the backing of a culture and of complementary institutions such as a free press. An unwillingness to commit to decisive action on the world stage has the consequence of American-installed regimes being weak and unstable. Regardless of one’s opinion of regime change by American invasion, the least that can be asked for is a wholehearted effort at reconstruction and not a halfhearted measure incapable of fulfilling its objective.